The word trauma is derived from the Greek word “wound”. Trauma is the seen and unseen wounds in our psychology and our biology. Trauma is, sadly, a universal human experience. In Australia, it is estimated 1 in 4 people have experienced a significant trauma.
Trauma is both a psychological and physiological experience. Simply put, trauma can be anything "too much, too soon and too fast" for us to process and integrate . This causes elements of the past to get stuck in the biology of our bodies and our subconscious experience- influencing behaviour and even creating illness (dis-ease).
Trauma can be a single event, a collective experience, inter/trans generational and existential. Similarly, trauma can occur from witnessing a traumatic event, however this vicarious experience of trauma can be felt in our body and minds as if it were our own.
Types of trauma:
A single event trauma may be sexual assault, a motor vehicle accident, physical injury or anything else that threatens a person at a single point in time.
Complex trauma occurs when there are layers of ongoing trauma such as child abuse, neglect, domestic and family violence, bullying, war trauma or genocide, cultural dislocation, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Transgenerational or intergenerational trauma occurs when generations have experienced injustice or maltreatment. The First Nations people of Australia have had to bear the impact of racial trauma, attempted genocide, forced removal of children from families, a stripping of culture, language and community and as a result, subsequent generations are bearing the wounds from the past. African Americans, Native Americans and colonised people-groups have suffered similar wounds. Holocaust survivors and Jewish families also carry the wounding of attempted genocide and ongoing discrimination.
Existential trauma is the threat of mass extinction, the adverse impact of climate change and the awareness that our planet may not be able to sustain life as we know it into the future.
To quote Greta Thunberg,
"I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act like you would in a crisis. I want you to act like your house is on fire, because it is.”
What are the symptoms of trauma?
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was known initially as shell shock, where veterans returning after World War 1 were seen to become frozen in a kind of helplessness, appearing as either constant anxiety and panic, a desire to flee, bouts of explosive temper, over reacting with irrational violence and all of this accompanied by an inability to reason, sleep, walk or even talk (at the extreme end of symptomatology, literally frozen).
This was in fact, the nervous systems response to extreme distress and overwhelm as a result of experiencing the unimaginable horrors of war.
Trauma aware practitioners have now recognised a number of responses to trauma; the flight or fight response is well known, however in addition, there is the freeze response , flopping (paralysis) and fawning -common in domestic abuse situations where the victim attempts to appease and avoid conflict by over pleasing the perpetrator.
The five F's of the trauma response.
These responses are all a reasonable reaction to unreasonable experiences.
Evolutionary theory would suggest that when our forebears were faced with an external threat, e.g. attack by a sabre tooth tiger, the body responds by going into what is called a sympathetic nervous system response. This is where all the blood rushes to the brain, heart and periphery (legs and arms), so that you can run or fight maximising your chance of survival.
It has even been said that the more anxious the individual was, they're more likely to survive as they would be a little more concerned about what was rustling in the bushes, or if the cave door was sufficiently protected at night as opposed to their more 'laid back' counterpart.
Heightened anxiety is a survival mechanism. A lack of a sense of safety keeps our nervous system on high alert.
When a continuous sense of being unsafe wires the nervous system in this way, the anxiety can become overwhelming and lead to a state of utter exhaustion and paralysis.
Bessel van der Kolk is an American psychiatrist who was working in adolescent wards during the 1970s. He was shocked at the amount of labels and diagnoses the young people were given, and yet the common denominator was trauma stemming from childhood abuse and neglect.
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain and body”
-The Body keeps the score. Bessel van der Kolk-
Gabor Mate is a Canadian psychiatrist, the son of Holocaust survivors who worked amongst the addicts, homeless and outcasts on the fringes of society and it was his observation:
“It is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or addictive behaviour”.
Many risky behaviours stem from a desire to avoid or numb pain whether emotional, psychological, spiritual or physical. That is why a trauma aware approach is to withhold judgement, recognising that an individual’s behaviour is always in context to their unique environment and experience. It is always kinder to ask why, rather than blame what appears to be.
Post Traumatic Growth
Thankfully there is good news, we can heal from trauma. In fact, there is a whole clinical field of study dedicated to what is known as “Post traumatic Growth”.
Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) theory, defined by psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun in the mid 1990’s, holds that those who have endured psychological struggle after adverse life events can often recognise positive personal growth afterwards.
(With Post Traumatic Growth) “people develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life”.
Just to clarify, Post Traumatic Growth is different from resilience. Resilience came from a term regarding the nature of steel, where it was able to “bounce back” and return to more or less its original form after stressors were applied to it.
PTG acknowledges that we may never return to our “original “ shape but our new normal will potentially possess positive responses in 5 areas:
Appreciation of life
Relationship with others
New possibilities in life
Furthermore, the relatively new understanding that the brain and nervous system are able to rewire and be remodelled (neuroplasticity) provides the physiological evidence for psychological change and healing after trauma.
Eudaemonia : flourishing . Start with a Greek word, end with a Greek word
A naturopaths recommendation
Mood and Food:
The food you eat is the biochemical nourishment for your cells, hormones and neurotransmitters that control mood. See what you eat as an act of self-care. Look after your body and your mind with a whole food diet. Avoid processed foods, alcohol and sugar as much as possible. Observe how you feel after eating a healthy meal, compared to the fleeting mouth pleasure of chips (I am very familiar with this one!)
The link between gut and brain health is now undeniable, when we eat fibre and fermented products, this helps to feed our good gut bacteria (probiotics). The brain is 70% fat, therefore having sufficient healthy fats in our diet support our brain structures and function.
Think fish like salmon, anchovies, sardines, herring, raw nuts and seeds, cold pressed oils and avocados.
The brain needs glucose to function and also nutrients like B12 and iron. Deficiency states can occur when one is a vegan or vegetarian and blood tests are essential for identifying if you are low in any vitamins or minerals.
Move for your mood:
Dance, run, walk in nature. Moving helps you get out of paralysis. Baby steps. Find what sparks your joy, it may be bouldering, hiking, hip-hop, surfing, skating-the list is endless. There are certain systems of your body that cannot work unless you move. For example, your lymphatic system which is responsible for immune function, detoxification and fluid balance. Similarly, when you move you stimulate peristaltic function which is movement of food and waste through the digestive tract. This creates healthy bowel movements. A lack of exercise can contribute to constipation.
Connect with nature:
Walk on the sand, walk in the bush or forest. Swim in the ocean and rivers. Studies have shown that there are considerable health benefits to exercising in nature including lowering of blood pressure, decreased heart rate and increased sense of well being
Vagus nerve therapies (polyvagal theory):
The vagus nerve connects the brain, the lungs, the heart and the digestive system. Trauma therapists are recognising the important role of this nerve and how certain therapies assist in creating a physiological state that benefits health and healing.
Examples include singing, humming, sunlight, prayer, laughing, exercise, eating more fibre, tai chi, massages and building social connections.
Weaving, painting, drawing, sand play, jewellery making, clay work, woodwork, collage, body mapping are all activities that help to ground us in the present moment and this also provides relief from our ruminating regarding the past or becoming anxious about the future.
Learning to be aware of the present moment can help immensely when you begin to feel overwhelmed. There are many free Apps that can teach you simple ways to become more mindful and relaxation meditations.
Smiling Mind, Making Meditation mainstream
Helps to create a safe relationship with your body and breath, and assists with becoming grounded and in the present moment.
Connie Robertson, Jane MacNaught
Creating healthy connections:
Cultivate supportive and kind relationships. A sense of connection is vital for human life.
Try to avoid chemical cleaners, plastics and instead use essential oils, vinegar, lemon juice and bicarb. This is not only better for the planet but it is better for your health. Use indoor plants as natural detoxifiers, make sure to have fresh air circulating in your room.
Help others where and when you are able. Checking in on someone, sending kind words or sincere compliments and word of gratitude can literally change a life and yours too. Whatever is good, pure and lovely, try to think on and express that.
How to use the principles of trauma-aware-care to build a kinder and more caring community
Respect for diversity
The principles of trauma aware care are transferable to your daily interactions.
If you feel that any of this talk has created any distress for you, please reach out to -
*Remember there can be a time and place for medication. Never go off your medication without being in consultation with your health care professional.
References available on request.
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